Monday, February 25, 2008

02/16 - The spreading fight over paradise

Date February 16, 2008
Section(s) Local News

The Brunswick News

David Egan is a traveling man. He has spent time on a host of islands along the eastern seaboard, from Nova Scotia straight down to Key West.

But when Egan and his wife Mindy first stepped foot on Jekyll Island more than 15 years ago, they knew they had found something special.

The soft lullaby of the ocean waves, the warm glow of the summer sun, the complete absence of whizzing traffic and rushed lifestyles - it all brought the couple back to the island time and again.

"There is just something spiritual about Jekyll Island that no other place has," said Egan.

The Egans eventually uprooted their lives to the beachfront island from New York, plunking themselves down in the sand to start living on island time.

Then something unexpected happened: the Jekyll Island Authority announced the Egans' sacred Georgia paradise was about to undergo a dramatic change.

Egan isn't opposed to the revamping of his beloved island. In fact, he agrees that Jekyll is long overdue for a makeover.

What he disagrees with is the way the change is happening - too quickly, he said.

When the Jekyll Island Authority began asking residents what they thought about plans and revitalization, Egan wondered why these same questions weren't being asked to Jekyll visitors. After all, he surmises, those are people who will be equally affected by the revitalization efforts.

"I had been a long-time visitor here and I thought it was only fair that the people who are coming here should have a say in the plans," said Egan.

To understand how easily Jekyll guests would swallow new plans, Egan founded The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island State Park. Through the group's Web site,, the grassroots association works to make the voices of non-residents heard with surveys and updates on the redevelopment project's progress.

It also has expanded the battlefield, to include the entire state and beyond.

When Egan launched the organization and the Web site, he expected a couple of hundred responses from people across the state wanting their two cents to be counted.

Turns out, Egan greatly underestimated the impact Georgia's only oceanfront state park has had on the nation. To date, Egan reports more than 10,000 responses on the site, coming from every state in the nation except North Dakota.

Locally, residents from some 300 Georgia cities and towns have replied to the site.

"I never anticipated this level of response. When I started getting e-mails from Hawaii and Alaska, I knew we were on to something," said Egan. "I guess everybody knows about the island except North Dakota. But my guess is, they'll find out soon."

From these thousands of responses, Egan has found that the overwhelming majority of individuals support some sort of revamping effort on Jekyll. It's just the specifics on which no one can seem to agree.

"It's been unfair that those who oppose the Linger Longer plan are seen as opposing all types of change. That's just not the case," Egan said. "We all agree that something needs to be done. Hopefully, we can find a middle ground."

Jim Langford said he hopes for the same thing. As project executive for Linger Longer Communities, the group responsible for the Jekyll Island redevelopment plans, Langford has felt the heat emitted from local groups not in agreement with the company's blueprints. And it's a heat he has seen light up the whole of the Southeast. From Jekyll to Atlanta to the Blue Ridge Mountains, individuals across the region are debating the pros and cons of renovating the state-owned island.

"Public debate is a healthy thing," Langford said. "People might think we're not listening, but we are. These plans are not locked in stone. We take in to account everything we hear and all the opinions of people who care about the island."

More than the project manager, Langford has personal ties to the island. With fervor, he recalls 1958, the year he was 15-years-old and first laid eyes on Jekyll's sprawling shoreline.

"I think we are all working toward the same goal, to make Jekyll Island the best place it can be," said Langford. "We can all agree that we want Jekyll to retain its uniqueness."

Equally as quick to recount a boyhood spent frolicking on Jekyll's sandy beach is state Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick. These fond recollections have fueled Chapman to stoke the fires of controversy in Atlanta during the Georgia General Assembly, where he has proposed legislation that would alter, if not altogether stop, the current Jekyll Island rejuvenation plan.

"I remember we had relatives from up North, and they'd come down and we'd spend the day showing them our Jekyll. Those were some of the funest times I ever had," said Chapman. "People across the state are working to be heard. I mean, I can hardly go anywhere without someone stopping me and wanting to talk about Jekyll Island.

"A lot of people have happy memories of Jekyll. That's what's motivating them to be speak out."

Whether to Chapman or Langford, Tise Eyler is determined to have his thoughts on the island redevelopment plans heard. Though he has never been one to participate in fights, Eyler, president of the Jekyll Island Citizens Association, is not content to watch his island slip away from him.

After spending much of his life traveling around the world, Eyler, a retired U.S. Navy captain, finally gained a sense of home on Jekyll 22 years ago. Now that he's found this gem on the Georgia coast, he's not willing to let it go.

"I've never been involved in anything like this before. And I'm not opposed to rejuvenation. I just don't want Jekyll to become another Hilton Head or Myrtle Beach," said Eyler. "There are few places left in the world where you can find the natural beauty that is here on Jekyll. I think the preservation of beauty is something worth standing up for."

Legislative front

In his second attempt to halt the Linger Longer Communities rejuvenation plan on Jekyll Island, state Sen. Jeff Chapman, R-Brunswick, recently proposed three bills in the Georgia General Assembly. The legislation would:

* Prevent additional full-time residences from being built on the state-owned island.

* Create restrictions that would prevent construction of the proposed Beach Village near the waterfront.

* More strictly define some legal terminology used in defining the redevelopment project, including "lowest hotel rates reasonable and possible."

What Linger Longer plans

"The overall goal of our Jekyll Island plan is to make the island a place families and conventions will again want to visit, but also preserve the natural state of the island," said Jim Langford, project executive for Linger Longer Communities, the group responsible for the Jekyll Island redevelopment plans.

The $344 million Linger Longer plan seeks to:

* Help the state-owned island generate revenue to maintain a state of self-sufficiency, as required by Georgia regulations.

* Create Beach Village, a hub of central activity within walking distances of hotels

* Create three new hotels, ranging in price from economy to mid-scale

* Create a new convention center

* Create more green space while adding additional parking

* Preserve sand dunes and maritime forest

Who's involved in the Jekyll Island battle

Friends of Linger Longer Communities redevelopment plan:

* Jekyll Island Authority

* Brunswick-Golden Isles Chamber of Commerce

* Jekyll Island Oversight Committee of the Georgia General Assembly

* Glynn County Commission

Foes of the Linger Longer plan:

* State Sen. Jeff Chapman

* The Initiative to Protect Jekyll Island

* Jekyll Island Citizens Association

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